SANDWICH, ENGLAND l Now, it’s time to start asking questions, to wonder, even to doubt. Once, he can be forgiven, twice written off to a youthful mistake. But now there have been three major championships over the last 13 months that Dustin Johnson has had within his reach and he might as well have been grabbing at smoke, so futile have been the attempts.
Johnson lost the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach with the 54-hole lead in hand, slapped away with a left-handed swat next to the second green on Sunday. At Whistling Straits, in the 2010 PGA Championship, he ignored the posted local rules and – no matter how you feel about it – he grounded his club in a hazard and was penalized out of the playoff between winner Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson.
At this week’s Open Championship, Johnson started the final round one shot back of Darren Clarke and fresh off a Saturday evening chat with the press during which he defended American golf.
“Well, the European Tour guys have been playing well,” said Johnson after a third-round 68 that put him squarely within sight of his first major championship. “They’ve played well in the last five majors, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the American guys or American golf. We struggled in the last majors, but everybody struggles in the majors. We have a great chance of bringing one home tomorrow.”
Johnson certainly didn’t blow the Open Championship, but he failed to step up in a critical situation with an excellent chance to win. He was one shot behind a player who had, like him, never won a major, and who knows what demons lurk in the mind of a man who had played so many Opens without once coming away with the Claret Jug, as was the case with Clarke.
But not only did Johnson not seize the opportunity, he practically shied away from it. Two bogeys in his first six holes, along with a birdie at the seventh, put him four shots back of Clarke in short order, after Clarke made eagle at the par-5 seventh to bring him to 7 under for the championship.
After it looked as if Johnson might go away for good, he made birdie at the par-4 10th and the par-4 12th to get back to 5 under and to within two shots of Clarke. But then came the denouement, the moment in time in which our hero commits the cardinal act and turns triumph into sporting tragedy.
At the par-5 14th, with a 2-iron in hand for his second shot, Johnson laid up out of bounds, nearly a cold-blooded shank onto next-door neighbor Prince’s Golf Club. The resulting double-bogey knocked Johnson out of the championship and allowed Clarke a free stroll to the clubhouse with the luxury of bogeys on the final two holes to still win by three.
“I probably should have hit 3-wood,” Johnson said of his blunder. “I mean, I’m two back and the rest of the holes coming in are pretty tough. You don’t get too many opportunities to make birdie, so it was definitely a go situation. But if I had it to do over again, I’d hit a 3-wood instead of a 2-iron.”
Johnson started the week not in the best of health. He had some kind of undisclosed illness that left him with swollen glands. Even he didn’t know what was wrong.
“I went and saw the doctor, but he just gave me some medicine and told me to take it,” Johnson said. “He said I’d start feeling better in a few days. I said okay.
“Today (Saturday) is the best day I’ve felt. I felt okay today. Still not 100 percent, but each day has got a little bit better. Thursday, I felt terrible, yesterday I felt pretty good, today I feel okay.”
He was 4 over after 10 holes on Thursday and remained that way until the 15th, when he went birdie-birdie-ace-birdie to get back into the championship. He bogeyed the 18th on Thursday to post even-par 70 at Royal St. George’s. His 68 on Friday got him within three of Clarke.
On Saturday, his 68 was one of only three scores under par in the entire field, a masterpiece under conditions that could only be described as Biblical. Rain was blowing sideways and the wind at times was a five-club gale. The remainder of the field was going alarmingly backward. Shooting 1 or 2 over was moving players up the leaderboard.
But Johnson played his most impressive round of golf in months, which gave him a shot at Sunday success. As is the case with most tour professionals, their sports psychologists have taught them not to be overly hard on themselves. Such were Johnson’s thoughts afterward.
“Obviously, like I say all the time, the more I put myself in this situation, the better,” he said. “The more I learn, the more I understand my game and what happens in this situation. But you know, I think I did a pretty good job. It was very tough.”
While some might describe that as the power of positive thinking, others might surmise that it was whistling past the graveyard. You’re free to wonder.